Wednesday, September 11, 2002

My former employer will be on NBC later on this evening.

I could use a little musical distraction, how about you?
Ladder 118

How will DNA tell us
whose hand grasped axe to free trapped
clerks in elevator shafts—
or which hand steered fatal jet
Or whose feet bore the weight of
boots, belt, air tank and helmet
up and down flights of stairs and
into the lighted pyre.

Will the DNA tell us
who loved to dance, though he danced
badly—Or which plotted to
undo dancer in mid-dance—

Or who, could he speak once more,
would surely ask, “May I have
the next dance?”

[link via they of small verdant pigskins.]
I had slept in the guest bedroom because Michael and I'd had a fight the night before. I had left the little black and white TV on all night next to the bed, for company, and woke just as Bryant Gumble announced that there was breaking news from Manhattan.

Michael had already gone to work. I tried to call my mom, but all circuits were busy. I turned on every teevee in the house.

I saw what you saw. No point in trying to describe it here.

The local Baltimore news cut in every now and then, admonishing us to refrain from driving on the highways or using the phone, unless absolutely necessary. I fired up the DSL and emailed everybody to assure them that we were okay and to read the news online (strangely, there wasn't much coverage for a while).

At some point, I went outside and marveled at the unusually quiet sky. Our house was in the northern, rural part of Baltimore County, under the busiest flight corridor in the country. Even though all the airports were an hour or more away, there were always commercial or military aircraft overhead. Now, the sky was nothing but cloudless blue, the only thing airborne being the ravens hurling from birch to birch, cursing each other.

Michael came home early, hollow-eyed. We hugged for a long long time, making up without saying a word.

[Link courtesy of eloquence incarnate]
The Cops from Madison, Alabama

Last fall, my friend Wayne and a handful of his fellow police officers piled in a van and drove to New York to relieve some of the Manhattan officers for a week. This letter appeared in the Madison County Record a few days later.

There's no link available, so I've re-typed it in its entirety here. The links are mine.

"I wondered when I would finally feel the sadness. I wondered why other New Yorkers I passed in the streets of Manhattan looked so pained while I felt so numb. I really began to wonder if I was human. I felt nothing at all. Nothing.

It started several days after the sky fell on September 11th, when I looked out my living room window in Westfield, New Jersey and saw friends and family visiting the pregnant wife of a 31 year-old man who was missing in the rubble. I tried hard to cry, but as much as I would like to say I felt courage and resolve what I really felt was an almost paralyzing fear brought on by the sheer audacity of the acts.

At work in Manhattan, I found it even harder to feel pain and sadness: I work across from the Empire State Building, and that building's new status as New York City's tallest skyscraper gave all of us in the surrounding neighborhood a case of the jitters. It's hard to feel sad when you keep looking up at the sky waiting for something to come crashing down.

Several days later my wife and I attended an interfaith service. I passed a sign with the names of a number of those from my hometown who had been lost. So many were parents of young children. I could feel a little lump forming in my throat. But I still could not cry.

The pent-up emotions finally hit like a ton of bricks when I least expected it: I was out walking in front of the Empire State Building. I wanted to simply be in the presence of the New York City police officers now guarding that building. And as I got closer, I saw that the building's entrance was being protected by police officers from Madison, Alabama. And I lost it. I ran upstairs to my office and finally shed the tears that had eluded me for three weeks.

You have to understand. Most New Yorkers are hopelessly provincial, still living with the illusion that they live at the center of the universe, as if this wonderful complex, diverse universe could even have a center! Some are even still fighting the civil war, with a view of the South that is as up to date as a Matthew Brady photograph. I know people who never even leave Manhattan, as if having found paradise they have no reason to go anywhere else.

Yet there they were out in front of the Empire State Building, a group of wisecracking, cynical New Yorkers who had surrounded these officers and were looking at them with the reverence usually reserved for members of the clergy. And these big, strong, confident reassuring police officers from a place that no one had ever heard of were actually calming the nerves of people who had seen things that no one should see and felt things that no one should feel.

I don't know where Madison Alabama is. I don't know how many people live there. I don't know what petty disputes are currently being fought out in its City Council, but I bet some group of citizens has been making a lot of noise lately about the lack of a stop light at some especially congested corner. I don't know if there is a peaceful river that runs through town or a lake where you can fish and swim. I don't know where in town you can taste the best barbecue
and I certainly don't know a soul that lives there.

But I do know that on a fine sunny day in my hometown, three weeks after it seemed like the world was collapsing around us, a bunch of courageous and compassionate cops from Madison Alabama were just what we needed at precisely the moment we needed it.

To the good and decent people of Madison: Thank you for your sending us your bravest and finest. Just the sight of their Madison shoulder patch and the decency and confidence they demonstrated gave me an incredible dose of hope that whatever comes along our almost instinctive compassion as a nation will overcome any adversary.

And do me a favor: Promise that someone from Madison wherever it is will get in touch with me the next time a river overflows (is there a river nearby)? The next time a fire leaves some people homeless, the next time - God forbid - that a place of such obvious kindness and decency has its reckoning with pain and loss. I'd love to help."

Steven Gorelick teaches sociology and media studies at the City University of New York.